HIGH DRAMA: "I’m not talking about being exclusive," Cardona says of her desire to reside at the LCC. But exclusivity seems to be the way people hear it.
My favorite story about Cora Cardona is one that Christina Vela tells. She and her husband John Flores have a daughter named Isa, now 10. When she was a baby, they used to bring her to rehearsals at Teatro Dallas.

"Cora would be directing a show and would have Isa on her hip," Vela says. "She would be telling people what to do, and, intermittently, she’d turn around and bite Isa’s cheek and just love on her and love on her. Isa has a very wonderful, dark personality, kind of like a Wednesday Addams. We say that was because she was bitten by Cora Cardona."

Look around at Dallas theater, and you’ll find that where it’s most creative—experimental, bold, dark—it shows some sign, either by affinity or direct imprint, of being bitten by Cora Cardona, the co-founder and artistic director of Teatro Dallas.

During the 1990s, Cardona’s company included some of the most talented people now working in local theater: David Lozano, artistic director of Cara Mía Theatre Company; Flores, who wrote the script for Our Endeavors Theatre Collective’s last play, (The) Book of Matches, and adapted Schiller for Tristan Decker’s production of Love and Intrigue at the University of Dallas; Vela, who runs the Creative Solutions program for Big Thought and recently joined the company at Kitchen Dog; Christopher Carlos, co-artistic director of Kitchen Dog; and Frank Mendes, an ensemble member at Our Endeavors before its sad demise last fall. All of them acknowledge that what they do now has its roots in their experience at Teatro Dallas. And not one of them, by the way, says the "c" in "Cora" as if it were a "k," the way I do. The sound is deeper in the throat, darker, almost a hard "g" with a whisper of blood in it, like the last sound you’d make if you died of impossible desire.

TEATRO DALLAS. ISN’T THAT AT THE LATINO CULTURAL CENTER? Many people think so. Cardona herself thinks it ought to be, but her theater space now is on Record Crossing, in what she calls a "high-tech tent," a mile or so west of the hospital complex on Harry Hines Boulevard and Inwood Road. That’s ironic, because when she talks about the difference between now and 1985, when she and her husband, Jeff Hurst, founded the theater, she points to the lack of any Latino presence in the arts then and to the presence now of the Latino Cultural Center.

Its very existence, she says, demonstrates the political power of the arts. "People all of a sudden awakened to this [Latino] reality. I think, indirectly, without planning it, Teatro Dallas had a lot to do with it. I simply came [to Dallas] and said, ’Let’s do theater.’ My dream," she says, "is that we would be the resident theater company."

What does that mean? Not that it would be the only company to perform there. The Dallas Theater Center, for example, is the resident theater in the Kalita Humphreys Theater, but other groups also use its spaces. Cardona wants Teatro Dallas to reside at the Latino Cultural Center, as the Dallas Symphony Orchestra does at the Meyerson. "I’m not talking about being exclusive," Cardona says. "The Meyerson is a city facility."

But exclusivity seems to be the way people hear it. When I asked Alejandrina Drew, the general manager of the Latino Cultural Center, what she thought about the request, she explained the mission of the center and sent me a list of the 15 or so organizations that use it twice a year free of charge. "Embracing all of these organizations has enabled LCC to fulfill its mission and maximize the usage of space," she wrote. "It has also created a rich environment for the development of all the Latino performing arts organizations in Dallas."

Absolutely. But 21 years after its founding, Teatro is not simply one among the others. It is the precursor and nurturer of all the rest. It deserves more recognition. But more than that, Cardona needs a central place to continue to expand her influence, both in performance and in teaching, without taking away anything from the others.

That influence shows best in the caliber of the Latino professionals she has fostered. Cardona gave them a chance, as Christina Vela explains. "With her, we got to play so many roles that otherwise we would not have been given," she says. "I never thought it was that kind of chip-on-your-shoulder, ’Latino-American’ theater that—I’m going to say it—I’m not attracted to. It was compelling, creative, magical, fantastic stuff."

SAVE THE DATES

APRIL 6-30
The Crucible. Is it time for Arthur Miller’s McCarthy-era fable about the Salem witch trials? You decide. WaterTower Theatre, 15650 Addison Rd., Addison. 972-450-6232. www.watertowertheatre.org.

MARCH 31-MAY 13
Phantom of the Opera. If you’re sick of the longest-running show on Broadway, catch Pocket Sandwich Theater’s popcorn-tossing comedy-spoof by Joe Dickinson. 5400 E. Mockingbird Ln., Ste. 119. 214-821-1860. www.pocketsandwich.com.

APRIL 1-MAY 13
Waiting for a Train: The Life & Songs of Jimmie Rodgers. The edgy Undermain Theater goes country in a tribute to the man who set the standard for Hank Williams and the rest. Bring the family. 3200 Main St. 214-747-5515. www.undermain.com.

NOW IN HER 50S, CARDONA IS A BEAUTIFUL woman whose voice makes you understand why her actors always imitate it when they talk about her. Born in Mexico City, Cardona graduated from the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (INBA) with a degree in theater. She toured with National Classical Company of Mexico and worked with famous Mexican directors such as Julio Castillo, Juan Ibáñes, and Héctor Mendoza. She moved to Austin in 1980, where she studied with the legendary Alice Wilson at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center, toured with the Project Interact company, and married Jeff Hurst. They came to Dallas in 1984.

Who still exerts the most influence on her imagination? Other than Frida Kahlo, probably Alejandro Jodorowsky, whom she met through INBA. Cardona worked with him on the stage, but Jodorowsky became a cult phenomenon as an underground filmmaker, especially after John Lennon discovered Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970). His radical way of conceiving theater powerfully affected her. "Theater is like the circus," Jodorowsky once said. "It’s about taking risks with yourself in front of an audience."

That’s the kind of performance that riveted Caryn James, who wrote a 1992 review in the New York Times of Cardona’s performance in a documentary about Frida Kahlo. "Ms. Cardona does not imitate Kahlo so much as bring the depths of that volcanic, tortured personality to life. Depicting Kahlo’s reaction to her accident, she wraps a large chain around her leg and reveals both pain and astonishing strength as she says, ’I am not dead. I am not sick. I am only broken.’"

This month, Cardona directs her latest offering at Teatro Dallas, Bad Blood, by Argentine playwright Griselda Gambaro. "It’s all a kind of fairy tale story of a king, queen, daughter, and butler of the totalitarian power," she says. "It’s very much Latin America and the dirty war in Argentina. There is a seller who constantly goes by the castle and sells melons, but it’s really the heads of people they’re decapitating. It’s really dark. It’s the Theater of Cruelty—but not just because it’s a style of theater, but because it’s a reality of the cruelty of Pinochet, of Videla in Argentina, of the real, horrible dictators that have unfortunately been backed up by the United States. It’s a farce. It’s so cruel that you start laughing."

The play opens April 7 at her current theater space at 1331 Record Crossing. There, "backstage" means behind the heavy, dark canvas hanging around the walls—her high-tech tent. The outside door in the row of prefabricated office buildings opens directly into the stage space. Anybody who comes late will be in the play—maybe as a melon.

Ironically, people give money to the Latino Cultural Center thinking they’re helping Cardona. She’s sardonic about it, but she clearly thinks about what she’s given to Dallas, which she calls "an extremely kind city" to anyone who has something authentic to bring. Which she does.

AFTER A WHILE, YOU JUST WANT TO HEAR MORE stories about "Cora." Christina Vela tells one about doing the stage version of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ story The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and her Heartless Grandmother, in which an old lady prostitutes her granddaughter because the girl accidentally burned down the house and all its prized possessions.

"I wanted to play that grandmother like you wouldn’t believe," Vela says. "We’re sitting in the theater the last day of auditions, and she turns to me and she says"—Vela breaks into a spot-on imitation of Cardona’s dusk-and-blood accent—"’Hi, baby, why don’t you just do it?’"

The moan, the resignation, the dark, joyful risk of surrendering to what somebody else wants so much. It’s a sentence you’d have to hear spoken.

Not dead, not sick, not even close to being broken, Cardona could be doing more if she were based at the Latino Cultural Center. As John Flores says, "Cora Cardona is the queen vampire mother of us all, and we go out now on her dark bidding."

Words Can Hurt Me
A new play at the Dallas Children’s Theater tackles the thorny issue of girls who bully.

Think children’s theater is all bunnies and lollipops, and girls are all sugar and spice? Think again—especially if this month you’re headed to the Dallas Children’s Theater to see a staged reading of The Secret Life of Girls. The play, for tweens and up, is about "the hidden culture of aggression in girls," according to author and DCT resident playwright Linda Daugherty.

"I’m not a psychologist, and I’m not claiming to know the answer," Daugherty says. "I’m just trying to open a window and say, ’Here’s what’s there. Do you like what you see?’"

Chances are, you won’t. The girls are cruel, two-faced, and self-serving—behavior that’s objectionable at any age, but these girls are 11 to 13. Daugherty did her homework. She interviewed girls about bullying (dishing it out and taking it), and, thanks to modern technology, the audience can read the e-mails and IMs and check out pictures the girls exchange throughout the show. These elements are as integral to the play as they are  to the lives of pre-teen girls today.

The award-winning playwright has a long history with the DCT. She’s a childhood friend of founder Robyn Flatt and a student of Flatt’s father and Dallas Theater Center founder Paul Baker. Daugherty began teaching and performing at the DCT in 1986. Two years later, she wrote her first play for the children’s theater. By 1990, Daugherty was the resident playwright. Of every season’s 10 productions, anywhere from one to five are hers.

So what does she suggest we do about the mean-girl phenomenon? "Name it," Daugherty says. "Name it strongly. It’s bullying. And you have to be aware of the consequences," such as cutting, depression, and eating disorders. It seems words are the problem and the solution. Too bad that old adage about sticks and stones isn’t true. —JENNY BLOCK

The Secret Life of Girls is playing April 27 at 7:30 pm and April 29-30 at 4:30 pm at Rosewood Center for Family Arts, 5938 Skillman St. 214-740-0051. www.dct.org.

Photos: Cardona: Elizabeth Lavin; Kids: Courtest of Dallas Children’s Theater